Mona Hamid left Saudi Arabia 8 years ago for a career in marketing in Dubai. Now, the mother of two and a career woman is fighting back against what she calls the archaic practice of male guardianship in her home country.
“When I wanted to leave Saudi Arabia after university, I had to get permission from my father, and that took a lot of convincing,” she told Bikyamasr.com. “I had to explain why this was a good idea and how I would still be able to find a husband.”
Hamid did find a husband, an Irish man, which led to years of battles with her family, who demanded she divorce and marry a Saudi man.
“It was ridiculous and for at least three years, my father didn’t talk to me,” she continued.
This is when she started to blog, anonymously, about male dominance in the ultra-conservative Gulf kingdom and the male guardianship system as a whole, which demands a woman have permission to travel abroad and conduct everyday life in Saudi Arabia.
A married woman in Saudi must also get permission to work, which often leads to a struggle inside the home, she said. “What we see is that many women are married young and forced to stay at home and have children. It is a tough life for women in Saudi Arabia,” Hamid said.
With women like Hamid, there are now groups online battling against the ultra-conservative ways of Saudi Arabia. They are demanding women have the right to drive, work as they please and travel at their whim.
Many women’s rights activists cite the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, as clear evidence that women have the right to work. Islam, they say, is clear that women can have a job.
In Saudi, however, women are only permitted to work if their job does not interfere with their duties as a wife and mother. More specifically, their profession should not allow them to mix with men.
“Women should also have special skills, such as in teaching or medicine. Islamic scholars generally agree that women seeking employment do not need a guardian’s permission. But the government does not see it this way and allows the conservatives to control what a woman does and where she goes,” said Riyadh-based women’s rights activist and blogger Rania Abdullah, who told Bikyamasr.com that she works with local women to empower them before marriage.
“The key for Saudi women’s future is to start working before getting married, because this gives young women the ability to choose their life, and their partner easier,” she added.
Last fall, a group of Saudi women launched a campaign to abolish the Ministry of Labor’s rule that women must have guardian approval to seek employment. Alia Banaja, a spokeswoman for the group, told the Saudi media recently that the Saudi constitution affirms women’s equality by stating in gender-neutral language that, “Equality, justice and consent are the basis for ruling.”
“For women to have the chance to work in the profession of her choice, obstacles must be eliminated out of her way,” Banaja told the English language newspaper Arab News.
By challenging the Ministry of Labor’s guardianship rules, the group is doing what was unthinkable just a few years ago.
While this battle will likely continue for years to come, for women like Hamid and Abdullah, it is the first step in what they hope will be a women’s revolution in the Gulf kingdom.
“If we can continue to maintain pressure and push women to the forefront, it will be a matter of time before we start to change society,” Hamid said.
By Sharifa Ghanem